The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous parables Jesus ever told. The term, good samaritan, has become synonymous with someone who shows mercy. Overall, it’s a positive name. Even many organizations use it to show how they care for people. But the meaning of the good samaritan would have been much different to Jesus’ 1st-century audience.
I want to break down this story so that we can read it in a way that helps it come to life and see the true good samaritan meaning.
If you haven’t read the Good Samaritan story you can read it here: Luke 10:25-37
The Context Of The Parable Of The Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan starts off with a lawyer (religious leader) testing Jesus by asking him a question (Luke 10:25).
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
We know his motives. Luke makes clear that the lawyer isn’t interested in the question, he just wants to test him. But Jesus knows this so rather than answer his question he responds with another.
“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26)
What’s interesting is the lawyer responds correctly in Luke 10:27-28. Jesus even tells him that, but he tacks on that it’s not okay to just know it. You have to actually live it.
The lawyer is sharp and he sees what Jesus just did. Jesus just called him out on not living up to what he believes. Now he’s faced with how to respond. He can either repent and fix his ways. Or try to justify his actions. He chose the latter.
And who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29)
Realizing he can’t actually live out the law perfectly, he searches for the loophole. He’s trying to justify himself. He’s not interested in following Jesus; he just wants the rewards. He doesn’t want to know who his neighbor is; rather who his neighbor isn’t. That way he can narrow the field so he can claim that he is fulfilling the law.
He was also following the common teaching of the day. Rabbinic literature of the day made a clear distinction that your “neighbor” was only to include Israelites. What Jesus is about to do is expand the parameters of who his neighbor is. Far beyond where this lawyer, or any Jew, would be comfortable.
He does this by telling a story. The story of the Good Samaritan.
The Meaning Of The Good Samaritan
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a response to BOTH questions the lawyer asked. Jesus doesn’t just address his justifying question, “Who is my neighbor?” but also his first, “What must I do to be saved?” Based on these two questions Jesus launches into this parable.
Scene 1: The Setup
The story of the Good Samaritan is fictional, but the details are pulled from real life. Luke 10:30 starts off with a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road was known to be dangerous. Thieves would often hide in the many caves, curves, and cliffs and ambush unsuspecting travelers. It’s not a route you would travel alone.
From the beginning, those listening would have recognized how foolish it was for this man to take that route by himself. And of course, the inevitable happens… the traveler is beaten up and robbed.
He got what was going to him. But this isn’t a story of the consequences of foolish decisions. Jesus is about to throw a curveball.
Scene 2: The Religious Losers
The traveler is badly beaten and barely hanging onto life when a priest comes across him (Luke 10:31). But the initial hope is soon dissipated. The priest doesn’t help. Not only does he not help, but Jesus makes clear that he went out of his way to pass by on the other side of this half-dead traveler. He wants nothing to do with him.
Next, a Levite comes by the bloodied traveler (Luke 10:32). Surely he will stop and help, right? Nope. He too passes by on the other side.
Both of these first two people were clergymen. A priest’s job was to officiate temple sacrifices and Levites helped maintain the temple and its’ services. Both of these jobs required them to remain ceremonially clean while on duty. There was a list of things they couldn’t do, one of them being touching a dead body, or really any bodily fluid.
These religious leaders were placing their adherence to the rules over the needs of people. They missed the point. These religious leaders were more concerned with their outward appearance of cleanliness than the actual condition of their hearts.
The lawyer’s heart has to be sinking because he can see himself in the story. He would have likely done the same thing. But Jesus isn’t done, it’s about to get worse.
Scene 3: The Unsuspecting Hero
“But a Samaritan…” Luke 10:33
Those words today are lost on us. When we see the word Samaritan we think of something good. The term “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to the lawyer and the Jews of the day. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews and were seen as half-breeds. There was an intense rivalry that often turned violent.
In the lawyer’s eyes, the Samaritans could do nothing right. But in Jesus’ story, it’s the religious that do wrong.
Jesus doesn’t stop with the Samaritan just checking on the guy; he goes above and beyond (Luke 10:34-35). The good Samaritan not only has compassion but his compassion moves him to action. He cleans and binds up his wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, and pays for his stay. At great cost to himself, he ensured this man was cared for.
The symbolism in this story is striking. The Samaritan was hated by the religious leaders. As was Jesus. He rescued the person who needed him the most. As did Jesus on the cross. And he did all of this out of love for someone that could never repay him. As did Jesus.
The story ends with that. But still, Jesus isn’t quite done.
Scene 4: The Aftermath
Remember this story was brought on by two questions and Jesus is now circling back around to them. The lawyer’s questions of “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” show that he was focused on the wrong thing. He was concerned with correct theology. But Jesus shows that knowing the right answer is insufficient. All the correct Bible knowledge is useless if it doesn’t lead it to life transformation.
Jesus shows the lawyer he was asking the wrong question. The question isn’t who is my neighbor, or what’s the right thing to believe. Instead, he should be asking, how can I be a good neighbor? And how can I live out my beliefs?
To drive his point home Jesus poses a question to the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36)
The lawyer can’t even say the name… “The one who had mercy on him.” (Luke 10:37) He can’t bring himself to admit that the good Samaritan was a better better neighbor than he.
The Good Samaritan Meaning For Us Today
It’s easy to read this story and look down on the lawyer. But this story should be used as a mirror to examine ourselves. Am I more like the lawyer or the good Samaritan? Am I being a good neighbor? It’s easy to quickly answer that question. But Jesus’ story forces us to actually examine our lives to see for ourselves.
The good samaritan meaning is simple. Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s simple to understand, but it’s really hard to actually live out.
Here are 4 lessons we can learn from the Good Samaritan.
1. Pray For God’s Heart
We often overvalue knowledge and downplay obedience. Much like the lawyer. The good Samaritan story teaches us that knowledge is not enough, we need the right heart.
The problem is we are not very good at changing our own heart. I would argue that on our own it’s impossible. That’s why it’s important that we start with prayer. God can cultivate in us a heart that beats like his, if we let him.
So, pray for God to change your heart.
Jesus also teaches this principle with the rich young ruler, I’ve written about that interaction here: The Rich Young Ruler
2. Keep Your Eyes Open
We walk by people in need every day. Sure they might not be bloodied and beaten up, but they are still hurting and need help. The problem is we just don’t see them. We need to open our eyes.
Open your eyes and look around. Who’s around you? And what do they need that you can provide?
3. Don’t Hesitate
When we see someone in need we often conjure up all the reasons we shouldn’t help. We don’t have the right words, someone else will help them, we aren’t qualified, or some other excuse.
And listen I get it. It’s tough. It can be scary. But don’t let those fears keep you from helping those around you. There’s more at stake than you likely realize. Instead, when you feel those fears and those excuses are ringing around in your head say a prayer. Ask God for courage and take a step of faith.
For more on what this looks like check out: How To Follow Jesus
4. Live Generously
If we aren’t careful we can easily get caught up living for only ourselves. Our lives become all about us, our needs, and what we want. That’s a terrible story to tell with our lives. And it won’t change anyone.
God created us to live a better story. To actually make an impact on someone. But we can only do that when we live generously. When we give rather than take. When we put others’ needs above our own.
How can you live generously for the benefit of those around you?
The good Samaritan meaning is a challenge for us to evaluate our lives and see how we are loving our neighbors. Do we love our neighbors as ourselves? The good Samaritan did just that. May we go and do likewise.
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